In Modern English, field is a word of many meanings. We may think of a green, grassy field, a field of wheat, a field planted with potatoes. But equally, we talk of fielding questions, a field of academic research, an area of interest or even a field of vision. Not to mention its uses in mathematics and physics.
Fortunately for my purposes, all of these meanings come from the same place. Lets start tracing its path through the centuries by looking back at the word in Middle English. There were a variety of spellings to be found, including feild, fild feald, feeld, feld and veld. So what about our modern-day spelling? The -ie- version, field, is thought to have been the work of Anglo-French scholars, a legacy of the Norman influence on English.
If we go to Chaucer’s work, we can find a few interesting references to fields. Let’s take a look at the Knight’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales, dating to 1385.
Alle the feeldes gliteren vp and doun.
(All the fields shone up and down).
Leaving aside for a moment what sort of light might be reflected in the fields, we can see that the word is easily recognisable. Interestingly, the same text contains another reference to field, but with a different spelling:
And foules flie the feld and fenne.
(And birds fly over field and fen.)
Again, it requires no special effort to see what ‘field’ means in this context. It is clearly talking about a piece of open land for the birds to fly over, although it tells us nothing about farming and cultivation. In fact, the word was used in a more general sense to refer to land than in modern English, and could mean ‘pasture, open area of land’ as well as ‘land set aside for cultivation’.
This takes us back to our next step in tracing the word; a trip into Old English. In earlier times, the word was feld, as you can see here in this quote from the Codex Exoniensis, or Exeter Book, a tenth century anthology of poetry.
Se æðela feld wrídaþ under wolcnum
(the noble field thrives under the skies)
You might be wondering what a noble field is, and obviously we are all aware that words can be used slightly differently in poetry, but our word here is still clearly recognisable; its form is very little changed. Even if we go to a slightly earlier point, the same is still true. Here is a line from King Alfred’s version of the Metres of Boethius, dating to around 886.
Weaxaþ hraðe feldes blóstman
(the flowers of the field grow quickly)
Before you point out that here the form used is feldes, I should mention that it is in the genitive form (of the field), which accounts for the -es suffix. We can still see the remnants of this genitive suffix in modern English possessive forms: the child’s hand, the bird’s nest, etc.
Returning to field, the base form in the days of Alfred was feld. There are cognates in other Germanic languages, such as in Old Saxon and Old Frisian feld, but also Old Saxon folda, meaning ‘earth’; this is also reflected in the Old English folde of the same meaning. Modern Dutch gives us veld, with an older form of velt, meaning ‘field’; German Feld also has the same meaning.
The word came from Proto-Germanic *felthuz, meaning ‘flat land’. When we realise that the land was flat, we can trace the word back further, to Proto-Indo-European *pel-tu, which is derived from the root *pele, meaning ‘flat, spread out’. It is the same root which is the source for plane and plan, as you can see here.